Tuesday 28 March 2017

Towards a realignment of the Brexit debate

What do you believe, at the heart of everything? Ask most people about that and they wouldn’t be able to tell you. I’m not sure I can tell you myself. It shifts with the weather; it modifies itself according partly to who I most disagree with.

On the other hand, people want to know what political parties think. Whatever they might say about wanting reasonable politicians, it isn’t at all clear that they want political parties that are a little bit of this and a little bit of that…

This is the dilemma of the ‘core vote strategy’ that is under such debate inside the Lib Dems. On the one hand, it is the antidote to mushy short-term campaigning, which leads to rootless ‘revivals’ and rapid disillusion. On the other, well, that’s what this column is about.

On the face of it, the case for a core vote strategy is unanswerable. On the other, you have to ask more fundamental questions about what is absolutely core about Liberalism. Otherwise you might enshrine short-term policy solutions – the Iraq war or Brexit – as part of the core, forgetting that there may be Liberals who see things differently.

It is a strange thing but opinion on Brexit remains pretty fluid. I know a number of people who are moving from Leave to Remain. Personally, I feel myself – rather unwillingly, kicking and screaming – going the other way.

Not because I am somehow vacillating about the core values of Liberalism, but because I doubt whether clinging to past structures is the best way of getting there. There comes a point where we Liberals need to pitch our tents around new and better institutions, which actually do the job.

I realise that my kind of Liberalism is not now well-represented in the party as it once was. I’m not a social liberal. I’m certainly not an economic liberal. I in am what the academics describe as the 'Distributist' wing, a reference to the work of thinkers like Belloc and Chesterton – first inside the party and then outside it, and coming back to the fore under Jo Grimond in the 1950s.

I'm not even sure there are enough of us to fill a whole wing any more - perhaps a couple of out-buildings.

Yet these seem to me to be core Liberal values – devolution of power, economic structures that maximise independence, anti-trust action and other measures against giantism, small-scale property ownership. It isn’t that the modern Lib Dems have turned against them, but they have downgraded them to cling to institutions which may not be nearly effective enough because they are too big (and I don't mean the EU). They have veered towards a kind of institutional conservatism that I find a little difficult.

Why have they partly forgotten their Distributist wing? Partly because of the merger with social democrats in 1988 (who don’t really possess a Distributist wing). Partly because of fears about populism, and partly perhaps because of a tendency to see politics still in terms of right and left.

The loss of this Distributist edge (see the latest Journal of Liberal History for a good summary) has three serious consequences.

1. No economics: Distributism was primarily an economic creed, deriving partly from Joseph Chamberlain in his radical days. Without it, we get stuck in the economics of the 1970s (social liberalism) or of the 1870s (economic liberalism), caught between Fabianism and libertarianism.

2. Fading liberalism: For me, the Distributists represented the development of the old Liberal tradition untouched by Fabianism, which came with a great deal of unhelpful baggage. When the Distributists left the party in 1912, they took with them a potential radical alternative to Corbynism.

3. Muddled core vote strategies: Without that strand, it becomes impossible to see how Liberal voters decided to go with Brexit in so many places – Burnley, West Wales, most of the West Country. And unless that is obvious, those voters may be lost to intolerant populists forever.

There were Liberals, after all, who felt that their commitment to small-scale government, to self-determination and devolution, edged them in the direction of Brexit. If the party is ever going to win back people like that permanently, they need to develop a message that somehow embraces them too.

If a core vote strategy actually alienates a critical part of the Liberal coalition, then Liberalism shoots itself in the foot.

The answer may be to develop a core vote strategy, not based on a bundle of policies but on a bundle of attitudes, psychological types or moods. And if we do that, the need for self-determination, self-employment, self-actualisation is going to be pretty important.

As for the Brexit debate that continues, it is pretty clear that we need international structures - that's the only way we can reform international bodies like Facebook (it is pretty clear to me, even as a Liberal, that - after a terrorist attack - the police need to be able to intercept the messages of terrorists).

We badly need to move on, and it seems to me the Lib Dems are finding themselves doing so - but achingly slowly. The real question is whether we can imagine a debate where the genuine reformers (from Liberals to Douglas Carswell) align on one side against the nationalists and conservatives.

I can't see that yet, but it is where we need to be. Because this is not a game. The nationalists are at the gates of civilization. It isn’t just about engineering the next Liberal Revival, it is about remaking Europe.

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist. Get ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Monday 13 March 2017

Win a copy of new R.D. Laing book!

Win a signed copy a of Ronald Laing: The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist. Click the link at the end of this blog to enter our GOODREADS BOOK GIVEAWAY. Or use a click-to-tweet below to tweet and enter our weekly EBOOK GIVEAWAY.

Something about our culture is riveted by the 1960s and 70s, and it was certainly a peculiar time – I’m old enough to remember it. But the ultimate period film is coming out in April, where the actor David Tennant plays the ultimate 1970s icon, the radical psychiatrist R. D. Laing.

The film, Mad to be Normal, takes us back to the tale of Kingsley Hall in the late 1960s – and you can also read about that, and what led up to it in my book Ronald Laing; The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist .

But for me the key year was 1973.

It was a strange year, 1973. There was an energy crisis which destroyed the certainties of the postwar generation. Oil shot up in price. There was war in the Middle East. There were private armies in the UK, widespread industrial action and people like David Bowie singing about “five years – that’s all we’ve got”.

There was bombing, rioting and, by the end of the year, a three-day week enforced by law which forbade companies to work any more than that. And, amidst the chaos and the fundamental questions and criticisms, the world of psychiatry was rocked by a study published that year in Science by the Stanford University professor, David Rosenhan.

Rosenhan had tested the assumptions of conventional psychiatric medicine to destruction by seeing how they stood up to the real world. He recruited a team of his students, including himself, who were all instructed to go to their doctor complaining of hearing voices in their head. It was the only symptom they would mention – they would otherwise have no problems or issues, mental or physical. The voices would say rather anodyne things like “thud”. The pretend patients would have no previous mental issues either.

Without exception, Rosenhan’s students all found themselves admitted to mental hospital, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Once they were in hospital, their instructions were all the same. They were to behave completely normally and they found their experience of incarceration was also remarkably similar. Not one of the fake patients was recognised as sane by the hospital staff and, over a period of between seven and 53 days, they were all discharged as “schizophrenics whose symptoms had temporarily abated”.

Rosenhan was able to see the clinical notes written about his team when they were in hospital, and was fascinated to find that nothing they could do would be interpreted as sane. One of his students kept a diary about his time in hospital, and had been seen doing so by one of the hospital staff, who had written that “he indulges in writing behaviour”. It was a telling, worrying phrase.

Win a copy of Ronald Laing: The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist. Click to tweet. Just click the Goodreads link at the end of this blog to enter.

What he could not have hoped for when he was designing his experiment was what happened next. The research team had involved twelve mental hospitals, and they were not happy when the news came out with the publication of Rosenhan’s study.

But another one – what had not been involved – boasted in the public forore that followed that it would never happen there. Rosenhan seized the initiative and threatened to send some fake patients there too. The hospital then judged 41 of 193 recent patients as sane, and – only when he discovered this – Rosenhan revealed that he had actually not sent them any.

The Rosenhan experiment went to the heart of an issue in psychiatry in those days, a generation ago, when all professions were suddenly under scrutiny for the arrogant ways they used their professional privileges and powers. After all, psychiatrists could uniquely lock up people they decided were not sane, and do so indefinitely, without a second opinion, and carry out a series of irreversible and unproven treatments on them without their consent.

But what did it mean? Rosenhan seemed to imply that psychiatry was in the grip of a series of self-supporting assumptions about the sanity or otherwise of the population, which had no obvious relationship to the real world.

But the most important implication was set out clearly by Rosenhan: that psychiatrists were unable to tell the sane from the insane, with serious implications for these concepts. It seemed to imply, if nothing else, that there was something seriously wrong with the whole mental health profession.

Rosenhan had been inspired to try his experiment during a lecture by Laing about how insecure conventional psychiatric definitions were. He had wondered if he could design an experiment to test the proposition. It turned out that he could.

Win a copy of Ronald Laing: The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist. Click to tweet Just click the Goodreads link at the end of this blog to enter.

Ronald Laing was an enigma, then at the height of his fame, and people immediately saw that Rosenhan’s findings were important evidence that Laing was right. He was at the heart of a passionate debate, and a bitter argument, about sanity and what it meant – and how to claw it back – which seemed to go to the very heart of everything. Especially when the world seemed pretty insane, was perched on the edge of nuclear oblivion, and seemed unable to heal the rifts between rich and poor, black and white, old and young and East and West.

Since his groundbreaking book A Divided Self was published in a popular Penguin edition in 1965, Laing had been on a stratospheric journey that took him from a career as a major critic of the psychiatric establishment, and a spokesperson for those who had been misused by it, to something else entirely – a religious guru, the author of a million radical T-shirt slogans, a leading poet, a social critic and a theological maverick.

It is nearly half a century since Rosenhan’s research which marked the high point of Laing’s fame. Treatments are often a good deal more effective and more permanent than those offered in Laing’s day. Mental hospital inmates are no longer treated with the sheer cruelty, that Laing exposed to the light of day. But those in great mental distress are often forced to beg for help from overstretched mental health trusts, or to live isolated lives being cared for ‘in the community’, which tends to mean not being cared for at all.

Those in the grip of mental ill-health – which may be anything up to a quarter of us at some time in our lives – are categorised against the same kind of numerical classifications that Laing condemned, and weaned onto drugs that can still undermine their ability to recover.

Now David Tennant is playing Laing in the story of his alternative therapeutic community, Mad to be Normal (released in April). My new book Ronald Laing: The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist sets that story in context – telling the strange tale of Laing’s revolt inside Scottish mental hospitals, and also his wider story in the context of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture.

If you want a good read around the story of Laing, I would humbly recommend it.

You can buy the Kindle edition here or click the link below to enter the Goodreads Giveaway to win a signed paperback copy. Or simply click to tweet and follow us on Twitter to be entered into a weekly draw to win an ebook version.

Monday 6 March 2017

Ten ways of the Absent Corporation

Let’s call it Catch-23. It is when you load your old version of Word onto a new computer and you are told that Microsoft cannot verify the code online, and that it has to be done by phone (see numbers below).

Then you find that telephone verification is no longer available for this version. You are caught in a very familiar double bind.

It is familiar also from dealing with many of the new generation of internet behemoths. The service is fine until something goes wrong, then – silence.

Try contacting Youtube because your children are being harassed by online bullies, or one of Amazon's suppliers when your goods don’t arrive – and you can find, as I have on both occasions recently, that nobody replies.

The truth is, as Lindsay Mackie and I explain in our new pamphlet The Absent Corporation: Why big companies don’t want to see you, this is a very modern phenomenon – the great silence at the heart of these newly empty organisations.

I’m tempted to say, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘let me count the ways’, but in this case I will just count to ten…

1. The customer service lines which have been outsourced (even Waitrose) to specialist online providers.

2. The alarm buttons and online feedback clickthroughs which are manned and never get a reply (we all know which they are).

3. The CRM software that has no space for your particular issue (most of them).

4. The deluded company HR departments that think than customer service can be replaced by a five-point scale for every ‘interaction’.

5. The rise of human-free trains and self-checkout – increasing at five per cent every year.

6. The tide of computerised selling, which is now used by 80 per cent of American companies.

7. The transformation of service staff into security guards – to police how we use self-checkout machines or get on trains.

8. The regeneration companies with no real existence apart from a name plate in an offshore finance centre like Jersey or Dingle.

9. The dark and silent flats on the investment estates in London, owned by absent investment companies in Shanghai and Singapore.

10. The increasing use of virtual teachers and doctors, mainly to service poor people, and the strange amnesia about the transformative effect of relationships with professionals.

None of this suggests that there are never benefits for human-free interaction, but it is another thing to say that software can tackle every conceivable problem – or that there should never be anyone there to help when something goes wrong.

This is a symptom of financialisation and a kind of tyrannical Taylorism, but most of all it is about the rising imbalance of power between these vast public and private semi-monopolies and the increasingly powerless people they serve.

See my Guardian article on the Absent Corporation. You can also buy the pamphlet here, or as a kindle edition here or as a pdf here.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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